EMDR: How the Heck Can Eye Movement Help Trauma?

Posted by on Sep 25, 2019 in Blog From The Experts, Hot Topics | 1 comment

First, let’s talk about trauma. There are all kinds of trauma both physical (like a serious injury) or emotional (like an assault). Sometimes there is a combination of both.

We all have a pretty solid grasp on how our bodies can heal from physical trauma, but healing from emotional trauma is not so clear. Here’s a common example that illustrates this. We have all gotten a splinter at some point. A splinter in our skin would be a physical ‘trauma’ or injury, and when that splinter is removed, your body works to heal that wound. Now in a different scenario, what happens when that splinter is not removed? That wound becomes irritated, swollen and causes pain.

While it may be a simple task to remove the real-life splinter, how can an ‘emotional splinter’, or painful traumatic memory, be removed so we can heal? The brain’s information processing system naturally moves toward mental health. If the system is blocked or imbalanced by the impact of a disturbing event, the emotional wound festers and can cause intense suffering. Once the block is removed, healing resumes.

EMDR or Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing is a psychotherapy that enables people to heal from the symptoms of emotional distress that are the result of disturbing life events by effectively processing the memory and resolving it.

What is EMDR session like? An EMDR certified therapist and his or her client will have determined which traumatic memory to target in session. The client is asked to hold different aspects of that event or thought in mind while also using his eyes to track the therapist’s hand as it moves back and forth across the client’s field of vision. During this procedure, patients tend to “process” the painful memory emotionally and cognitively in a way that leads to a peaceful resolution.

So how does EMDR work? There are a couple of different theories behind the effectiveness of EMDR, and both involve ‘over-taxing’ the brain with tasks to make the traumatic memory less emotionally painful. One theory is that the left-to-right movement in EMDR causes bilateral stimulation in the brain. Bilateral stimulation in the brain has a calming effect on the nervous system, causes increased attentional flexibility (feeling less ‘stuck’ on an uncomfortable thought or memory) and has a distancing effect (making the uncomfortable thought feel smaller or farther away). All of these effects help the client process the painful memory more easily.

The other theory that explains the effectiveness of EMDR has to do with ‘working memory’. Working memory is also referred to as ‘short-term memory’. We use our short term memory system to store and manage the information required to carry out complex cognitive tasks such as learning, reasoning, and comprehension. This system has a limited capacity so during an EMDR session when the client is asked to recall an emotional memory and also start following the left/right movement, the competition of these two tasks on the working memory reduces the memory’s vividness and emotionality. As a consequence of this, the less vivid memory is what will be pulled up in future recalls.

There has been so much research on EMDR therapy that it is now recognized as an effective form of treatment for trauma and other disturbing experiences by organizations such as the American Psychiatric Association, the World Health Organization and the Department of Defense.

One Response to “EMDR: How the Heck Can Eye Movement Help Trauma?”

  1. Connie says:

    Does EMDR help if you only have partial memory. Would it help recall the whole memory.

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